- “Woman Walks Ahead” stars Jessica Chastain playing Catherine Weldon, a 1800s portrait painter who befriended Sitting Bull.
- Business Insider spoke to Chastain and director Susanna White about making the $US12 million Western and why many of the issues addressed in the movie are still being addressed in the country today.
In Jessica Chastain’s latest movie, “Woman Walks Ahead,” she continues her quest to get powerful female stories to the big screen. But to make things more challenging, this one is a Western.
“Woman Walks Ahead” follows the true story of Catherine Weldon (played by Chastain), a 1800s portrait painter from Brooklyn who travels out West to seek out Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) to paint him. But the two quickly build a friendship leading to Weldon assisting the legendary Native American leader and the Lakota people in their struggle over land rights.
Shot on location in Santa Fe on a low budget of $US12 million, the movie’s director, Susanna White (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Billions,” and “Trust”), does a lot with a little to give the movie the feel of the vast Westerns that were once a staple in the movie business.
Business Insider sat down with Chastain and White to discuss the importance of casting the movie with indigenous people and why the issues of immigration and racism that are affecting the country today make the release of “Woman Walks Ahead” (available on DIRECTV Cinema and in theatres on Friday) even more vital.
Jason Guerrasio: So you two voiced interest in working with each other, but it all comes down to that first meeting, right? If you two don’t get along it doesn’t really go beyond that I would imagine.
Jessica Chastain: Yeah, we clicked at our first meeting. I really liked Susanna’s work and we talked about the film and she talked about the story she wanted to tell and the point of view. We had a conversation about how all the indigenous characters would be played by indigenous people. That was incredibly important to me and I was on board. But in all fairness, I didn’t think the movie was going to get made. That was the hard line: I was not going to play Catherine Weldon alongside Sitting Bull if he was a famous actor wearing a wig and who wasn’t indigenous. And I didn’t think a financier would finance the film. But then [producer] Erika Olde, thank goodness for her.
Susanna White: Basically the movie was written 14 years ago for Ed Zwick to direct. I came across it three years ago. I grew up loving Westerns, as a genre. It’s one of the first things that got me into cinema. Those big John Ford films, this huge sense of scale. There’s a magic to that. But at the same time it was a world that I didn’t connect with. It was a man’s world, a very violent world, and where women were very marginalized characters – as were the Native Americans in the stories. So what I fell in love within a few pages was the Native American characters were very layered, sophisticated, we were seeing that culture from a different point of view and discovering it through the eyes and ears of this extraordinary woman. So there were two levels on which I loved it. It was a story of a strong female character but also the inverse of the Western as we’ve seen it. People without a voice having a voice.
Guerrasio: Did either of you know about Catherine before making this?
Chastain: I didn’t know about her. I started Googling her and then I started reading her letters, which were fascinating. Also, when I read the script I thought, “Did they really love each other?” I didn’t know if that was just something added [to the script], but in one of her letters she said that he proposed to her. So I just thought that was fascinating. These people from different parts of the country who, like Susanna said, were not being acknowledged as equal human beings, and this great love and friendship that they developed for each other.
White: Spending time on the reservation with the Lakota people, whenever I asked about Sitting Bull they said, “He was a great spiritual leader,” and that became important to me in the casting. As I read stuff he’d written I would hear this phrase that I can’t get out of my head, “The greatest strength is in gentleness,” and so when I was casting and came across Michael [Greyeyes] I thought I needed someone who had this spiritual quality.
Guerrasio: You were working with a $US12 million budget, how did you pull off the movie’s beautiful look on that kind of low budget, in regards to making a Western?
White: It was tight. We had to shoot it in 31 days, we had no time for pick ups. We never [could have] afforded it at the end of the movie. It was mind over matter. But we managed it and here’s the film after 14 years, so that’s all that matters.
Guerrasio: You made the movie around 2016, do you think it would have been easier to get attention to the movie and get more money for it if you made it now? With how aware the industry is now for female-focused stories.
White: I don’t know. People are seeing that female stories actually can do well at the box office, and numbers do talk in this industry, so I think there’s more of a conversation now. I don’t know how much the needle has really moved. We’ll see. But in how the movie is being received, I can see a shift.
Guerrasio: Do you see the needle moving, Jessica?
Chastain: Well, I can tell you with this film there’s a shift since it premiered at Toronto. In Toronto I remember there was an article that in the headline from a very reputable paper it said something like “Catherine Weldon Talks to Savages.” I found it so offensive, Michael Greyeyes pointed it out. If it came out now there would be greater repercussions to a headline like that.
Guerrasio: The movie was shot while the Standing Rock protest was going on, what was it like shooting this movie and the going back to your room and seeing that on the TV?
Chastain: It was always present on set. It was always spoken about. We were taking pictures and sending them to Standing Rock with our support. There was a big indigenous community working on our film so we weren’t separate from what was happening.
Guerrasio: Something like that going on in the present, can that get you deeper into the character you’re playing?
Chastain: It can help you put more into it. The story we’re telling is still happening. So if anything, it just made me understand why the story needed to be told. Sam Rockwell’s character says in the film that history is moving in a circle and that’s true. Look at what’s happening in the world today. We need to look at our history and examine and acknowledge what we’ve done and really learn from it in order to not repeat it.
Guerrasio: That must have been strange to experience, seeing Standing Rock was where Sitting Bull was killed. But it also has to be strange to go and promote a movie like this and then see what’s in the headlines today in regards to immigration, racism, these are all touched on in the movie.
Chastain: Children being taken from their parents.
Chastain: That’s what happened to that community [in the movie].
Guerrasio: What’s the biggest thing you’ve seen an audience take away from the movie?
White: The most moving thing for me was I went and showed the movie at Rapid City a week ago and to show it to that Lakota community, they were so moved to be given the validation of their community being taken seriously. At the end of the movie they started drumming. They had this whole ceremony to give me an Indian name to welcome me to that community. They gave me the name, “Woman Who Gets Things Done,” which is a beautiful name.
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